Any day now, according to the United Nations, the world’s human population will reach the nice round number of 8,000,000,000. In its latest annual report, the UN Population Division pegs Nov. 15 as the date that milestone will be achieved, but that’s just a guesstimate. No one knows precisely when or where Baby 8 Billion will make her appearance. But we can be fairly sure that she will be welcomed by her family the way most newborns are welcomed: with happiness.
It should make all of us happy that the human club is about to welcome its 8 billionth living member. UN Secretary-General António Guterres calls it “an occasion to celebrate our diversity, recognize our common humanity, and marvel at advancements in health that have extended lifespans and dramatically reduced maternal and child mortality rates.”
Yet to many modern, educated elites, the enlargement of the human race is cause for despair and angst, not joy. In sophisticated circles, childlessness is promoted as virtuous — even stylish. In one of her Instagram videos, progressive heartthrob Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argues that whether it is “still OK to have children” is a “legitimate question” since there is a “scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult.” Celebrity Miley Cyrus tells Elle magazine that she refuses to have a baby on our “piece-of-sh** planet.” Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s “Real Time,” sings the praises of young adults who steer clear of parenthood. “I can’t think of a better gift to our planet,” he told his audience, “than pumping out fewer humans to destroy it.” The BirthStrike Movement, which extols childlessness, claims that “not having children is the single most impactful decision that a person can make to reverse climate change.”
None of this is new. For centuries there have been prominent voices proclaiming that having more kids is a bad thing and forecasting that “overpopulation” will lead to disaster. Today, climate change is invoked as the looming calamity. Not long ago, it was starvation. Paul Ehrlich grew famous writing bestsellers like “The Population Bomb,” a 1968 book in which he diagnosed the booming number of people in the world as a “cancer” that would have to be excised through “brutal and heartless decisions.” Ehrlich claimed that “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death” in the 1970s and that it was too late to stop the coming annihilation. Other population alarmists, warning that “The Earth is Full,” insisted that the planet’s resources were nearing exhaustion and that if women didn’t stop having so many babies, men and women could expect a future without trees, drinkable water, or affordable energy.
But the predicted terrors never come to pass. There has been no mass starvation, no extinction of resources, no catastrophic collapse in human living conditions. By and large, the human race has never had it so good. And the best evidence of that is the impending birth of Baby 8 Billion.
One hundred years ago, the world could barely sustain 2 billion human beings. Ten centuries ago, fewer than 500 million could keep themselves alive. For a baby born in the year 1000, surviving childhood was at best a 50-50 proposition and living past 40 was a remarkable achievement. The average baby born today, by contrast, can look forward to 70 birthdays. If she is fortunate enough to be born in a wealthy nation, her life expectancy is closer to 80.
Is there poverty, suffering, terror, and cruelty in the world? Of course there is. There are frightful natural disasters, devastating wars, alarming new diseases — just as there always have been. Yet when parents bring another baby into a world where things sometimes go hideously wrong, they increase the odds that there will be someone to help set things right. In addition to the many other reasons to have children, there is this powerful utilitarian truth: On balance, more people make the world better.
The number of human beings has more than quadrupled since the turn of the 20th century, yet mankind is flourishing as never before. “If you had to choose a moment in history to be born,” former President Barack Obama once observed, “and you did not know ahead of time who you would be — you didn’t know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman — if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now.”
No one gets through life without sorrow, struggle, and disappointment, yet it is indisputably true that life on earth keeps getting better and better. In the aggregate, human beings have never been healthier, wealthier, safer, better fed, or better educated than they are right now. “From agriculture to air travel to the abundance of consumer goods,” I wrote in 2019, “the lot of ordinary men, women, and children has improved beyond anything even the most utopian optimist could have forecast in 1920.”
The most disturbing demographic datum today is not that there are about to be 8 billion of us, but that fertility rates — the average number of children per woman — are plummeting. It takes a fertility rate of 2.1 to keep a population level. In no European or North American country is the fertility rate that high. In China, the rate is now 1.7; in Russia, 1.6; in Japan, 1.4. Even in the “overcrowded” developing world, fertility rates have plunged. We are headed for a global “baby bust,” and by the end of the century, after peaking at perhaps 10 billion, the number of human beings will begin to shrink. Then we really will have something to worry about.
In the words of the late, great optimist and economist Julian Simon, it is people that are the ultimate resource. The more babies each generation produces, the more blessed is the generation that follows.
“Humans have for tens of thousands of years created more than they have destroyed,” Simon wrote. “That is the … most fundamental of all facts about the progress of civilization.” If men and women, on average, destroyed more than they produced, our species would have come to an end long ago, Simon pointed out. “But in fact people do produce more than they consume, and the new knowledge of how to overcome material problems is the most precious product of all.”
Yes, more babies mean more mouths and therefore more consumption. But more babies also mean more minds and arms and spines — and therefore more new ideas, more effort, more brainstorms, more imagination, more enterprise, more progress.
So welcome, Baby 8 Billion! Your arrival gives us reason to rejoice. May you be blessed with a long, fruitful, and happy life, and may you leave the world even better than you found it.
Jeff Jacoby is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. This column is excerpted from the current issue of Arguable, his weekly newsletter. To subscribe to Arguable, visit bitly.com/Arguable.